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Forget about way back when – what are we doing today?

In the year 2023, I intend to develop another approach to political matters: my motto going forward will be “educate and not agitate”.

Political reform is an essential part of the democratic experience. Jurisdictions that have an open process for reforms will find themselves on top of the food chain as countries. The United States is still, perhaps, the world leader in democratic reform and has continued to develop since the adoption of its constitution in 1789 — bending to the needs of contemporary society.

Britain, if we consider the role of the monarchy as it relates to the House of Commons, has also seen a shift in authority and rule, and that process has filtered down to the voters, who are now far more included in the enfranchisement.

In the beginning, there were no political parties; however, as they evolved, people found it more productive to associate with those who held similar views and formed groups. These associations became known as political parties whose principal objective was to:

1, Obtain political power and control of the parliament or government

2, Find suitable candidates

3, Conduct elections; ie, get voters and supporters to the polls

4, Present a coherent political ideology to the public

The issue of adult suffrage is a coefficient of democracy and shows the level of participation within any jurisdiction. Many would know the work of the Universal Adult Suffrage Committee in the abolition of the property vote in the 1963 election, which increased voter participation. Still, there will be those who also recall the work of the suffragettes, which led to women being allowed to vote.

However, enfranchisement does not stop there, if you examine the progress in the US in particular. Up until the early part of the 20th century in the US, the selection of candidates was done in smoke-filled rooms organised by party bosses. The voter got to choose from only that which the party bosses put forward. That all changed with the Progressive Movement, which brought about primaries where members of the parties voted in party caucuses through a nomination and vote process that preceded the general election and selected the candidate who would face the other parties. Britain, in a similar fashion, adopted primaries held by party caucuses that allowed all the members to participate. For a while, the Labour Party went one up on the Conservative Party by allowing all dues-paying union members and party supporters who were non-members an avenue to participate.

In the US, the Progressive Movement did not stop there in the early 1900s; it continued by developing the idea of “open primaries” where voters could vote or nominate any candidate of a party without having to verify membership, just based on their eligibility as a voter. In those types of primaries, the voter would receive a ballot of his choice for either party. Again, the Progressive Movement did not stop there, either; it began what was called a non-party primary where the voter received an open ballot, which was used to select the candidate of their choice. In that system, the candidates that received the highest vote for their party won.

The argument that preceded these new adaptations, which to date have been conducted in 38 states across the US — just approved in August through the Senate in Pennsylvania and decided by ballot in Florida — is based on the idea of increasing the political enfranchisement and getting more of the eligible voters involved in the real political process rather than remaining on the periphery.

It has been observed in the US that many years ago at the inception of party primaries and caucuses, many or perhaps the majority of the electorate were one party or another. However, today the statistics reveal a tremendous shift with 43 per cent of the voting public in the US being classified as independents, making them the single largest political group in American politics. Similarly, Bermuda is indicating that 47 per cent do not identify with any party. Why? The general reason is people have become dissatisfied with the parties.

How or who makes the decision to change towards an open primary system? Fortunately, the US has in each election a system of propositions that the voter can decide on during the General Election or forward as a petition. Ideas of reforms are built into the system so recommended changes that score high would be strongly considered or implemented. The parties themselves can also adopt that change. California, which is the largest state, has such a system.

In Bermuda, it may be a two-step process — three steps if we consider first a Bill of Rights for the voter. The first step would be a change to the existing Electoral Act requiring that a general election be mandated a two-step process, with the first being a primary held six months or a year before an election.

This would mean that rather than these primaries being handled in homes or church halls organised privately by the parties, they instead would become run by the Government as an ordinary part of the electoral process. It becomes a public affair and is the only assurance that there is no manipulation or control by party bosses.

While perfection still awaits us, at least there has been a movement that continues to increase the participation of the electorate in both the US and Britain. None of these progressive changes will be forwarded by our present parties in Bermuda because it does not suit their interest to do so. They will use the argument that they need to continue the role of “gatekeeper” to ensure that their candidacy follows the party mandate. In short, it is like the Vatican and needs to maintain the purity of its faith and ideals.

I recall talking to a delegate recently about broadening participation to include all members and supporters. However, they supported retaining the delegate system and said, “Yeah, but if they [broad membership and supporters] did have a vote, they would not understand the issues like we the delegates do because they will be making an uninformed decision based on an emotional vote.”

Does that not sound similar to the rationale for why the former oligarchs wanted to maintain the property vote?

The existing malaise within our political parties in these modern times is an affront to the integrity of our electorate, which is regarded as unimportant in the decision-making process of by whom and how the country is governed. A self-ordained elite has been created with the rationale “if you don't like it, go start your own party”. All this while knowing the difficulties, if not impossibility, of achieving success, particularly while their hands are on both the levers of government and its budget. The only thing that could be worse than the party’s position is the ignorance and apathy of the voters who themselves facilitate and enable the party bosses. Also because a significant portion of the electorate simply wants its party to win and let the subject of suffrage be damned.

For that reason, the next important piece of legislation aside from the Constitution, and indeed in spite thereof, is a “Voter’s Bill of Rights”. Such a document should be the foundation upon which society is built. Without it, society has no rights in reality.

Don’t let them deceive you with the slogan “one man, one vote of equal value”. Why? Because there is no value attached to the vote other than to show up to the polls every four or five and vote for whomever. There are no other specific rights or guarantees such that their vote will be carried out or have the performance by the candidate. Yes, the vote is equal but all equally of no real value. That slogan is as old as Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again (Like We Did Last Summer). When they shoot that old line, tell them it’s old, that there is a new dance in town now, and in fact that there have been several since.

The moral truth for today is that this generation of leaders is living on yesterday’s revolution of a bygone era, and must forgo any attempt of gaining pride out of the adult suffrage movement of way back when. The pertinent question is, what are we doing today? The movement which eclipsed in 1963 should represent the beginning and not the end of the suffrage movement. It is reminiscent of the discussions I would have had with my now-deceased lawyer friend, Lee G. Lovett, whenever I would talk about building greater ties with the US. I would remind him of the importance of Bermuda’s role in America’s beginnings, and he would with his sagacious tone say, “Tell me, because they would want to know, what have you done lately?”

That is the question all Bermuda needs to ask regarding our present status: what have we done lately? This is a particularly poignant question for those who see themselves as neo-revolutionaries carrying the torch of yesterday’s heroes of universal adult suffrage. Or those who want to be seen as the vanguard of that success carrying its torch forward.

Where are you now, and what are you doing today about adult suffrage, given that the battle is still to be won?

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Published December 31, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated December 30, 2022 at 4:50 pm)

Forget about way back when – what are we doing today?

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